Mountain Tops and the Asbury Revival
Can Mainline Christians Still Experience Moments of Godly Awe?
The text for Transfiguration Sunday in 2023 are the same as every year except this time it’s from the book of Matthew. Most of us know the story of Jesus along with three of his disciples going up to a mountain where Jesus is made to shine and is seated in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Peter and the other two disciples are astonished, but it’s Peter that is so dumbstruck that he starts talking about making altars for the three. It’s then that they hear a voice say that Jesus is the son of God and they must listen to him.
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Sometimes we interpret this to mean that while we have “mountain top” experiences, we have to come down and start getting busy serving others.
I’ve thought about how we look at this text a lot as I’m hearing reports of the goings on at Asbury University in Whitmore, KY. Many of you know what’s happening, what started as a regular chapel service at this Methodist institution nearly two weeks ago, hasn’t ended. College students continue to gather for singing, prayer and just being together in worship. As someone who grew up in charismatic circles, and became rather wary of excessive emotion in worship, I’m amazed and how “low-key” it is. That doesn’t mean it isn’t emotionally intense, but it isn’t filled with all the shouting one might expect from such an event.
Looking at it from a far this looks like what some would say is a “mountaintop experience.” Because it looks like such an experience, maybe it’s not surprising that some Mainline Protestants and Progressive Christians are looking at it with skepticism if not outright cynicism.
Because they come from an evangelical background and therefore aren’t “like us,” we assume all sorts of things about the crowd gathered. They’re too white. They’re not LGBTQ-friendly. They only care about what’s going on inside and not about the poor. One person talked with a colleague of mine and dismissed this “nonstop worship service,” as not part of what Jesus was up to in the world. When I asked what was revival in his view, he shared this meme:
This verse is important and I do think that God wants justice. God also isn’t amused with worship if you aren’t caring for your sister or brother.
But the problem I see with a response like this is that it reduces the faith to nothing more than social service. Justice matters to God, but if our faith is only about service with no chance for worship, I think it is a very thin faith that won’t last very long.
Don’t get me wrong, a faith that is all worship and Bible Study while ignoring the poor is no faith at all-but that doesn’t mean that worship and Bible Study are meaningless either.
There is a temptation among more Progressive Christians/Mainline Protestants to focus on the material over the spiritual. We think that we either have to focus on the material or we focus on the spiritual and that we can’t have both.
But the best Christian traditions tend to focus on both, that longing to connect with God that then drives us to care for our neighbors.
At the end of the day there is too much analysis and not enough willingness to stand in awe and take it in. As Nadia Bolz-Weber says in the way only she can: “Analysis has its uses, but I’ve been left over the past couple days wondering: can we just absorb something with an open-hearted awe and curiosity for one fucking minute?”
This gets me back to the Transfiguration. I’ve heard that what Peter got wrong was wanting to stay on the mountain when there were people who had to be healed. But what if that’s not the only way of looking at this text? What if the issue wasn’t that Peter wanted to stay but that he wasn’t taking in the beauty and the awe? What if we are missing the beauty and the awe of what God is doing in the lives of these young women and men? And if we are missing that, where else have we missed where God’s beauty and awesomeness is made known? Has our cynicism blinded us to see how God can act in the world?
As the Asbury Revival winds down, I don’t know what they result will be. We may not immediately know for weeks, months or even years. But I do think people’s lives will be changed. And maybe if we stop in the busyness of our lives and open ourselves up to God, we might be changed as well.